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Concussions and the world of Cal Football

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Mounting evidence connecting brain damage to football will undoubtedly affect the Cal program, especially with two former players afflicted.

Tennessee Titans v San Diego Chargers
Junior Seau was a former Trojan and NFL superstar who committed suicide at the age of 43; since then, it was found that he suffered from severe brain damage and CTE.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Water’s great. It’s more than half of your body. It’s nearly three-quarters of this planet. Everyone got all mopey when California had a drought. And another thing that’s great? Blankets. There are no more warmer thighs in my future, so blankets all I’ve got on chilly nights. Plus, there was that one comic book that was hella good. So when my classmates in high school called me “the wet blanket”, I knew it was the ultimate compliment—two great tastes that taste great together.

Well, that’s a random story that’s definitely not related to this post at all. But today, let’s discuss one of the worst aspects of one of our favorite sports: the terrifying amount of brain damage that occurs while playing football.

A study (from researchers affiliated with the Boston University Terriers, the Harvard Crimson, and the repugnant Stanfurd Cardinal) performed on 202 donated brains of deceased football players identified 87.6% of players at any level—or 99.1% of the 111 donors who were ex-NFL players—showed evidence of the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). If you have access to academic journals including the Journal of the American Medical Association, then I’m envious; also, here’s a link to the original publication because it’s always best to look at the primary research instead of just the media’s interpretation [1].

What is CTE? Is this related to the whole football-and-concussions issue that’s been in the news in recent years? Let’s go through a quick lecture to make sure we’re on the same page in terms of facts and starting knowledge. I’m all for visuals to supplement learning, so here’s a quick video from TED-Ed, an education-based offshoot of the TED organization.

If you can’t watch the video—or if you just hate videos, like TheBuckeyeBear—here are some of the key points:

  • Rapid head movements cause the soft, squishy brain to go kabam into the hard skull, often resulting in damage to the neurons (brain cells)—this is a concussion.
  • The brain can heal—but you have to rest!
  • Concussions can lead to lasting post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Once again, it’s important to rest because without an inability to do so can worsen PCS.
  • The risk isn’t just in those huge, horrifying hits. (No, I’m not linking any because I’m not that terrible of a human being.) Repeated small impacts can cause sub-concussive impacts, which may eventually accumulate and result in degenerate brain damage.
  • One consequence of concussions—even of recurring sub-concussive impacts—is the disease CTE.
  • CTE is caused by aggregates of the tau protein impeding function of the neurons. Think of tau protein as support columns in a tunnel. Impact causes the support structures to break off and clump together, which impedes traffic through that tunnel.
  • Simply because the problem of brain damage isn’t shitty enough, it gets worse (in a way that makes this terrible analogy become terrible-r). The support columns (i.e., the tau protein) are kind of magnetized, so they draw in surrounding support columns, causing the damage to continue accumulating even in the absence of acute trauma.

The symptoms are varied, terrifying, and often take time to show up; they include “blackout; headache; blurry vision; balance problems; altered mood and behavior; problems with memory, thinking, and sleeping; and the onset of anxiety and depression.” Symptoms manifest differently in everyone, so it would be foolish to diagnose one victim based on whether or not her symptoms match those of another. Playing it safe is probably a good idea to pull anyone who is suspected of being concussed from activity and letting them—or forcing them to—rest.

The issue is so bad that in the time since he made the connection between football and CTE, Dr. Bennet Omalu—played by Will Smith in 2015’s Concussion [2]—has brought his fight to not just the NFL, but he has elevated it against youth football. Omalu believes the damage is so severe that football under the age of 18 is tantamount to child abuse—and that it will be prosecuted as such in the future.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, Who Discovered CTE In Ex-NFL Players, Holds Briefing On Capitol Hill
Dr. Bennet Omalu looking decidedly non–Will Smithian.
Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images

So, why are you reading about this on CGB? Of course, this (very, very) likely affects all of our players—past, present, and future—and some of those players are bringing this conversation to the forefront. Neville Hawkins, a linebacker on our 1970 and 1971 teams, is embroiled in a class action lawsuit against not only the Pac-12 Conference, but also the entire NCAA for failing to inform student-athletes of the risks of football and failing to have proper procedures for treating players with concussions. The lawsuits states that the plantiffs, including Hawkins, “suffer from neurological and cognitive damage, including symptoms of traumatic encephalopathy”; Hawkins in particular was the victim of multiple concussions at Cal and “suffers from early onset dementia.”

Beyond that, there’s a Cal legend involved in another public battle with this issue. The tragic story of Joe Kapp’s struggles with mental fitness following a career of hard hits—in an era that was much less concerned with brain damage in football—has been well-documented. Now in his late 70s, Kapp struggles through severe forgetfulness, Alzheimer’s, and endless headaches; his contemporaries (such as Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders) have been diagnosed with CTE, so Kapp also suffering from CTE would be a surprise to no one... including Kapp himself. After all that he has endured, Kapp decided to donate his brain to research after he passes in the hopes that researchers will be able to learn from it and help posterity. Kapp and his family also highlight the difficulty in dealing with this issue—how does one make a choice when the thing you love is the thing that’s killing you?

Colorado v California Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

So, where should we go from here? We could ban football outright. Turn to touch or flag football. Revert to leather helmets. Engineer a helmet that’s loaded up with dashpots. Dismiss science as alternative facts and keep on with the status quo. I’m not going to pretend to have any answers here; there are people who are far smarter and more qualified debating the issue as we speak. But I think the issue is so severe and troubling that we should be having this conversation.

[1] The media will see titles of journals like this one and have a sensationalist report about “CTE discovered in 99% of NFL players” and I have to say that’s not the conclusion of this article. The research found it in 99% of the donated brains; playing devil’s advocate, we don’t know how the brain donation program worked. If former players who felt unwell and suspected that they suffered brain damage felt more inclined to donate their brains than players who felt fine and somehow escaped brain damage, then that would skew the data. I do think the connection is so strong that it warrants further research and action, so this isn’t me speaking as a skeptic. This is just me speaking as a scientist (some might even call me the scientist)—we’re trained to question everything we hear. It’s not to attack or tear down, but rather to evaluate if there are any holes or to improve. It promotes progress.
[2] I’m probably not only the only writer to reference Will Smith on CGB, but the only writer to have done so twice.